When I was about 9-10 years old I constantly badgered my parents for a dog. I loved dogs. It did not have to be a big dog like a German shepherd, just a small one, friendly to kids and loyal. My parents told me ‘No’ every time. – You’re not old enough, they said, or – we don’t want to take care of the dog, when you’re suddenly to bored to do it, was another argument, and the more practical (and creative) – the dog needs to be walked late at night, and that’s long pass your bedtime.
It did not stop my badgering, and 4 years later my parents finally gave up. I could get a dog – but a small one, and I had to pay for it myself. It was my dog, and therefore my responsibility, they kept saying. – Yes of course! I promise! I said. I was so happy.
Before I could get the dog however, we first had to find out which kind of dog and they told me that I needed to prepare for it. I read books about dogs. I talked to other dog owners. I slowly found out what it meant to take care of a puppy – and a grown dog. It required lot of work and time.
The summer ‘92 I got my first dog, a small cairn terrier. I loved it and I kept my promise to my parents – for about two months. The responsibility was suddenly real and not what I had expected at all; cleaning up after the dog before it was house-trained, feeding it three times a day, walking it four times, playing with it, even though I was tired, taking it to the veterinarian, and all the other practical stuff. After a while my parents began to help, and when I moved out years later, the dog stayed with them. It had become their dog.
The reality was that I was neither old nor mature enough to take care of a dog without my parents help. I thought I was. But I was a 13 year old lazy teenager, who thought I knew everything, because I read some books and imagined the rest. However, I was never as bad as the owner who tortured his dog Henry in Utah, which led to a felony animal cruelty bill known as ‘Henry’s Law’ in 2007. The Governor Jon Huntsman supported the bill and signed it in 2008, creating a first-offense felony penalty for abusing dogs or cats. When he signed it, he said:
“As we treat our animals, so do we treat our fellow human beings. There is a connection there that I think is undeniable”.
Even though I did not torture my dog, I was not a very good owner either. If it had been a child, it would have been removed – I don’t even know if I’m ready to take care of a child today. It probably requires a book or two.
But one thing is to understand the responsibility taking care of a dog, or any other pet, or a child for that matter, another thing is to understand the responsibility handling a government-system designed to kill people.
To me it sounds like a pretty scary responsibility – much scarier than having five dogs or three children. That’s why I would think it automatically requires politicians and voters to really, really do their homework in order to be really, really sure what they in fact are voting for. I would think it required a massive information-campaign from the state, maybe followed by some kind of mandatory test among the voters to know how much they knew about the death penalty, what their reasons were to support it, whether the same reasons were supported by facts, how much they had thought about the possible flaws in the legal system, and so forth. The choice to inject a lethal drug into a healthy person until he or she is dead should be a decision based on as much (critical) information as possible – that’s what you would expect from any modern and enlighten democracy – right?
In his book ‘Executed on a technicality’ from 2005, David R. Dow, a death penalty lawyer and expert, tells how he to begin with supported the death penalty:
“When I started representing death row inmates in 1988, I was not opposed to the death penalty. I was somewhere between agnostic and mildly in favour of capital punishment. Frankly, the death penalty was not an issue I had spent much time thinking about. The question of capital punishment was, to me, an abstraction, far away from my own life. I had known to murder victims, but I did not know any murders. I did not know how the system works”.
He soon did however, and then….:
“That is no longer true…..The difference between who I am now and who I was when I started representing death row inmates is the difference between knowing just an inmate’s name and knowing an inmate, between knowing how the system is supposed to work and how it actually works”.
One could argue that maybe David R. Dow back then belonged to an uneducated minority and that the great majority of the American population in fact has a solid understanding of how the death penalty system works. However the list of this (former) ‘uneducated minority’ seems long when you take a closer look. The list also include names such as former member of Congress Ron Paul, former governor George Ryan, Arkansas’ attorney general Dustin McDaniels, Darryl Stallworth, former California Deputy District Attorney, Donald Heller, Author of California’s death penalty law, and former US Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, and the list goes on. All, of them have supported the death penalty in the past and now opposes it, or have serious concerns about it. They are not alone. Several politicians, prosecutors, judges, legislators, law enforcement officers, conservative commentators and journalists have trough the years changed their mind when they learned the reality about a system they thought they knew all about.
I 1972 the US Supreme Court in Georgia v. Furman stroke down all existing death penalty-laws in the country in Georgia v. Furman after finding the application of the death penalty arbitrary and inconsistent in violation with the 8th Amendment in US Constitution, which prohibits ‘cruel and unusual punishment’. Two judges, Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall concluded that the death penalty in it self was “cruel and unusual punishment”, and therefore incompatible with the evolving standards of decency of a contemporary society. The majority did not agree with them.
But Justice Marshall had an interesting point. He emphasized the importance of public opinion as an indicator of the evolving standards of decency. These standards of decency were according to Justice Marshall necessary to assess the constitutionality of the death penalty. However, he said, public opinion about the death penalty must be limited only to informed opinion. So even though a Gallup poll in March 1972 found that 50% of Americans favored and therefore could not show that the majority of Americans was against it, the same 50 % had to support it based on solid information. Marshall believed that public support for the death penalty was largely caused by a lack of knowledge about it. If fully informed, the majority would conclude that the death penalty was both immoral and unconstitutional.
Marshall’s belief was and is called ‘The Marshall Hypotheses’. There are three hypotheses: 1) Support for or opposition against the death penalty is ‘inversely associated’ with the public level of knowledge about it, 2) the more knowledge about the death penalty the public gets the less the support for the death penalty will be and 3) those who support the death penalty for retributive purposes only, will not be affected by any level of knowledge.
At least eighteen published studies trough the years have tested one or more of these hypotheses. The results of these previous tests were somewhat mixed but supportive. None of these studies, however, examined the effects of change in knowledge levels with changes, if any, in death penalty attitudes and beliefs as needed for a more complete test of the Marshall hypotheses. In the study from 2005 ‘Can information change public opinion? Another test of the Marshall hypotheses’, John K. Cochran and Mitchell B. Chamlin addressed this, and gave 70 students a course on the death penalty. Cochran and Chamlin, found some very mixed results; some supportive of the Marshall hypotheses, some not, and some even contrary to them.
Overall, however the results were partially supportive and it did show some evidence that the support for or the opposition against the death penalty was ‘inversely associated’ with the students (who participated in this study) level of knowledge. At the end of the course, after receiving information, a higher level of knowledge meant lower levels of death penalty support and lower levels of belief in the death penalty myths.
It’s impossible to conclude something final from any of these studies, but it seems that some politicians and other public figures fit ‘The Marshall Hypotheses’ very well. David R. Dow changed his mind. So did a lot of other politicians, prosecutors and judges as mentioned above. Some quicker than others, but common for them all was that they learned something about the death penalty they did not know. In principle is doesn’t really matter, whether ‘The Marshall Hypotheses’ are true or not. What matters, is that America is a modern democracy, with transparent institutions (at least most of them), why there is no excuse not to seek the information necessary to make an informed decision as a citizen and a voter.
Does that mean you need to know everything about everything before you make a choice? Of course not, that’s impossible. But the bigger the issue and the bigger the possible consequences are, the more you need to be informed you need to be about the different aspects of it. So if you are asked to take a stance on whether your country needs a new national park, it’s ok if you think it is a boring issue and just says ‘yes’, ‘no’ or don’t know’, without thinking about it. But if we’re talking about whether to go to war or not, or whether you and your boy- or girlfriend should get a child, or whether it’s okay for the state to execute its own citizens, I would hope that whatever your decision is, its the most informed possible.
Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman supports the death penalty. I do not know how much he know about it – but I’ll guess that it’s not more than his fellow politicians – which is next to nothing. When Huntsman signed the ‘Henry’ bill he probably agreed that pets and animals in general deserve good care from experienced and responsible people. So did my dog. Huntsman would probably be a responsible dog-owner himself. As former governor his job was not only to sign bills from the state’s congress, he also had the job signing death warrants for inmates before their executions. He never did however, but if he had to, would he then feel secure about how much he really knew about the death penalty in Utah and in general? Would he agree, that it is important to know as much as possible when you are dealing life and death? Can the state authorities remove the execution chamber if it’s mistreated, just like a child? Is it a fair comparison?
I hope the answer to my last question would sound something like this:
“There is a connection there that I think is undeniable”.